Two nations

Education: Independent schools are booming as never before while some state-run schools sink irrecoverably. Labour's top priority is how to bridge what it calls educational apartheid
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The private sector success

The number of pupils in independent schools has shown its biggest increase for a decade as confidence in the economy returns.

As the Government prepares to abolish the assisted places scheme which helps bright children from poor families attend fee-paying schools, figures released yesterday reveal a 1.7 per cent rise.

The Independent Schools Information Service (Isis) which collects data for 80 per cent of fee-paying schools said there were 473,816 pupils in its schools in January - a rise of 7,600 on the previous year and amounting to 8 per cent of the school population.

There was an increase of more than 11 per cent in pupils on assisted places - up to 37,183 - after the Conservative government's decision to extend the scheme to primary pupils.

Overall, the biggest increases were among the youngest pupils: numbers in secondary schools fell by 0.4 per cent while those for nursery schools went up by 6.3 per cent and primary by 3.3 per cent.

The number of pupils from abroad increased by 9 per cent.

Boarding numbers continue to decline but the fall seems to be slowing, particularly among girls.

The overall increases were achieved despite a average rise in fees of 5.2 per cent, up slightly on the previous year. Average fees are now pounds 1,533 a term for day pupils. Nearly a third of pupils receive some form of help with fees, mostly from the schools themselves.

Isis argues that many schools with assisted places are heavily over-subscribed and will have little difficulty finding fee-paying pupils to fill their places.

Graham Able, head of Dulwich College, in south London (fees for day pupils pounds 1,995 a term), which has 270 out of 1,400 pupils on assisted places, said the school hoped to maintain a tradition which went back to the time when the Greater London Council paid for 80 per cent of the boys.

They were looking for alternatives to the scheme. He added: "We will do everything we can to maintain the socio-economic catchment of the school. It makes for a better education for every boy who comes here that we have people from a wide variety of backgrounds..

"We would be very interested in ways in which we could co-operate with the public sector without affecting our independent status."

The school already hosts a Saturday school for bright state primary pupils, funded by a charity, at which members of the school's staff teach for a small honorarium.

Independent school heads said they would protest to the Government about its plans to withdraw funding from preparatory school pupils on assisted places when they leave for senior schools at the age of 11 or 13.

Michael Mavor, head of Rugby School and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said the schools were interested in opening up their facilities to state school pupils, for example for specialist language teaching or Oxbridge tuition.

He said: "If schools are shut off from their local community but are absolutely thriving there is something wrong because it isn't related to the real world.

"But if you are running a school for fee-paying parents you can't make everything they pay for available to the local community. There is a balance to be struck here."

David Woodhead, director of Isis, said: "Parents are voting with their children for independent education in big numbers.

"Independent schools are in a strong position to withstand any pressure which may come from a Labour government."

Judith Judd

The failing state school

Failing schools need support rather than criticism if they are to reverse their spiral of decline, according to the head of one school on Labour's list of institutions which require "special measures".

George Varnava was appointed last December to oversee the recovery of Ashburton School in Croydon, south London, which was strongly criticised by inspectors in December 1995 and acquired the dreaded "failing" label six months later.

After the wave of bad publicity and loss of local confidence generated by the inspection report, the school is attempting to go "back up the spiral the other way", the head says. A series of interim inspections have charted some improvements, but as one of the longer-stayers on the failing list Ashburton will be all too aware of the new government's pledge to close schools which do not improve fast enough.

Planned legislation to be outlined in tomorrow's Queen's Speech would give the Secretary of State for Education and Employment powers to close persistently failing schools over the heads of local education authorities. They could then be reopened on the same site with a new head and some new staff.

Two terms at the helm have underlined for Mr Varnava, a former president of the National Association of Head Teachers brought in to manage Ashburton until a new head takes over in September, that simply heaping blame on a school will not help its recovery. He also insists that - whatever ministers may believe - there is no magic formula in setting a school back on the pathway to success. "A school is a community," he says, "it is not just about structures and therefore you can't apply a common formula to every school."

Among inspectors' criticisms of Ashburton were the boisterous behaviour of pupils between lessons and youngsters' habit of slipping out of school during the day.

Mr Varnava, arriving to find a school originally designed as a hospital, with stone-flagged floors, cut excess noise at a stroke by carpeting the corridors, while a new fence on the school boundary has effectively discouraged escapees. He says: "There are some problems in individual schools for which you can't blame the staff or pupils, and architecture is one."

Less simple to resolve, however, were the problems of high exclusion rates at the 11-16 comprehensive. The new head expelled 11 pupils permanently and 35 temporarily in his first two months in charge, but hails as evidence of growing good order the fact that both numbers halved in March and April.

Implementation of a plan to improve Ashburton's academic and discipline record has run in parallel this year with efforts to improve the school's tarnished local image. Enrolment numbers fell last September to 120 from 180, and the local press has had a field day with stories of a staff training day trip to France and an incident in which a girl pupil singed another's hair with a cigarette lighter.

Matters came to a head when two local politicians at a public meeting on education admitted they would not send their children to Ashburton, prompting Mr Varnava to hit back with a press release stressing that the school belonged to its local community. Since then, local press coverage has grown more positive, culminating in an article last week suggesting Ashburton had "turned a corner".

The head, naturally, would agree, but insists the process is down to local solutions, not simple managerial formulae. "You can shut a school and open it again, change its name or its uniform but ultimately it is the same kids," he says. "What is important is trying to have a community school which serves its community."

Lucy Ward

The Labour pledge: Funding for assisted places abolished

Labour's first education Bill will abolish the assisted places scheme and use the money saved to reduce class sizes for pupils aged five to seven. The cost of the scheme is pounds 117m a year, due to rise to pounds 180m.

Pupils with assisted places will continue to 0be funded until the end of the current phase of their education. Those in senior schools will be funded up to A-level, but those in preparatory schools will not receive funding when they move on to senior school.

The Government is looking for ways to bring state and independent schools closer together. A key passage in the Labour election manifesto makes clear the party's position: "The educational apartheid created by the public/private divide diminishes the whole education system."

The Labour pledge: Fast track procedures to improve standards

New legislation to be proposed in tomorrow's Queen's Speech will give the Secretary of State for Education and Employment powers to replace the "hit squads", devised by the Tories to take over failing schools, with a new "fresh-start" policy under which schools could be closed and reopened with a new head, new governors and new staff. The Government also proposes fast-track procedures for removing poor teachers.

At present, only local education authorities can close schools, though ministers have indicated that they intend to push LEAs to move faster to bring on failing schools not considered to be improving quickly enough.